World’s Best B-School Professors: Sheena Iyengar

Columbia’s Sheena Iyengar is one of the world’s best business school professors

Sheena Iyengar
Columbia Business School

Age: 41

Claim to Fame: Expert, the art of choosing

Discipline: Management

Education:

Stanford University, PhD, Psychology
University of Pennsylvania, BS, Economics
University of Pennsylvania, BA, Psychology

At Columbia Since: 1998

Before Columbia: Sloan School of Management at MIT

Fun Fact: I like my coffee with four sugars

If I wasn’t teaching, my dream job would be: No idea, this is my dream job

Best part of the job: Getting to talk about and create new ideas

Worst part of the job: Not enough hours in the day for everything

With her research that explores the factors of good and bad decision making, Sheena Iyengar is considered one of the leading experts on choice.  In her 2010 best-selling book The Art of Choosing, she takes readers on a journey, forcing them to challenge the choices they make—and why.

Iyengar dissects the beauty and ugly truths about decision making. Through pointed research studies, she looks at the relationship between how we choose and who we are, why we are so often disappointed by our choices, and the level of control we have over our everyday decisions. She has examined the freedom to choose in a multitude of contexts ranging from employee motivation and performance at Citigroup, to chocolate displays at Godiva.

Although these accomplishments are impressive, what’s more inspiring is how this 41-year-old professor was drawn to the art of choosing in the first place. At the age of 3, she was struck with a disease called retinitis. “Although I had some vision when I was born, I was legally blind. By the time I was 9, I lost the ability to read. Then, somewhere between 15 and 16, I was down to the point where I had only light perception.”

In The Art of Choosing, Professor Iyengar discusses how these life circumstances drew her to study the power of choice. “I always knew I would have to think carefully about what I wanted to do in life. I understood that not all the choices in the world would be available to me so I had to figure out what choices there were, what choices I could create, and what would be the domain of which I would try to add value.”

Through this deductive reasoning, Iyengar was led to teach. “I love ideas. I love communicating to other people. I also enjoy learning about other people and from other people. Teaching is all of that.”

Aside from her brail note cards and the students raising their hands in the direction of her teaching assistant, Iyengar says her classes are no different from the rest. “I make myself available before and after class, and each session is usually filled with very lively discussions.”

Iyengar also points to her research as another reason she loves her profession. “No matter what idea you’re interested in, you can follow your curiosity and pursue it. In my case, I’ve dedicated my career to understanding the positives and negatives of choice, and the ways people can balance them to get the most from their decision making.”

After two decades of studying choice and the mysteries that lie within, who does Iyengar say is the model decision maker? Though she conditions it by saying no one is the perfect decision maker across the board, “Warren buffet is someone people can really learn from. He’s somebody who has enormous expertise on how to choose and make investment choices. However, what’s remarkable about him is not the choices he’s made, but the choices he’s decided not to make. During the Dotcom boom, he acknowledged his limitations and chose not to invest in something he didn’t understand. That shows wisdom.”

 

Students Say:

“In a word, being in class with Sheena Iyengar awesome—she is so lively, and hilarious, self-effacing and probing, but without ever being aggressive. And no matter who’s talking, she gets her answer! Furthermore, after class, she was always last to leave the room, always willing to continue the discussion with students who wanted to know more. And this never seemed to be a chore for her; she seemed genuinely interested in guiding students towards further resources and providing bits of coaching advice. For me personally, she also gave me tidbits of advice that proved to be most useful when preparing for my interviews with TED for a fellowship last year (I ended up being selected a 2011 TED Fellow). “Take deep breaths” she said–“it will slow your thoughts down and also your speech,” As a certified yoga instructor, I knew this advice was most true, but hearing it from her made it my point of focus! I credit her advice and encouragement for helping me score the fellowship, which has changed my life. I wonder how many other students’ lives she’s touched in similar ways, by taking the time to contribute “nuggets” of well-tested and applicable advice!

“Another great quality she shows as a professor is being able to draw great guest speakers who can contribute expertise that might be outside her own, and to choose exercises (e.g. role-playing) that draw on class material but allow us to explore ideas on our own.” — Nina Tandon Columbia EMBA 2012

“Professor Iyengar facilitates very interesting conversations in class, forcing us to examine leadership and organizational challenges from many different perspectives.  I am finding that I frequently apply principles and lessons learned in class to my day-to-day responsibilities at work.  What I find particularly unique about Professor Iyengar, is her attention to the detail and her emphasis on the importance of contributions made by students in class. For example, at the start of the semester, she was able to remember most of my 43 classmates’ names after they had participated in class just one time.  By the end of our first class, Professor Iyengar already recognized my voice and knew exactly who I was when I spoke, without me having to state my name. Professor Iyengar gives us in-class exercises and homework assignments that challenge us to think of ideas and actions that we can apply to our respective workplaces.  I feel very fortunate to be a student in Professor Iyengar’s class.” — Zvi Lantsberg Columbia EMBA 2013

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